Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

The Road to ONA: Why successful publishers focus on community

Publishers’ business models are undergoing fundamental transformation as they react to the end of the era of free news and look to the power of their community to survive and thrive.

In the runup to the  Online News Association’s annual conference  ONA18 in Austin, we’re taking a look at some of the biggest trends that will dominate discussion there.

The changing business model for journalism is one of the most fundamental topics that will run through discussions across conference stages and in the city’s bars as attendees grapple with the seismic shifts buffeting the industry.

The last few weeks have seen some fascinating moves by publishers to shake up their business models to find new ways to fund their journalism and support their unique position of community trust and respect.

Membership takes off

Membership schemes have been pursued for a while now by publishers across the board and it’s heartening to see the early success of such schemes as loyal readers happily contribute to support their favoured publication, when asked.

The Guardian is of course one of the most successful examples, with over 300,000 members, and last month saw Buzzfeed launch its own scheme,  reports Digiday  — which also has its own burgeoning membership scheme —  in an interesting partnership with Google.

Other publishers are investigating membership of a different kind, letting readers actually own the publication through selling stock. Following the huge success of online news site  Berkeleyside, which raised $1m through a direct public offering, Sonoma West became the first local newspaper group to follow suit.

The owner of The Healdsburg Tribune, The Cloverdale Reveille, The Windsor Times and Sonoma West Times & News  last month announced  it was already a quarter of the way to its $400,000 target since launching in March.

It’s all about the community  

The one thing all of these have is their focus on shifting from simply supplying news as a commodity towards building a community and encouraging the community to support the journalism that serves it.

It’s the move from simply chucking out your news across social media in the hope someone reads it to having the trust in the strength of your community and the quality of your journalism you’re providing it with to become a destination, not simply a source.

The Telegraph, which last week announced it had hit its 2018 target of 3 million subscribers four months early, is in no doubt of  the value of building a community and providing a destination brand rather than merely churning out content. As Dan Silver, head of digital publishing at The Telegraph,  told Digiday  in April, “You have to build communities over time rather than overnight, you need patience and willingness to experiment.”

The focus on community is supported by other behavioural shifts in how people want to consume news, with younger generations in particular losing trust in social media as a source for news,  as highlighted in recent research  from the BBC.

Increasingly people want news to come from sources they trust, and in local news nothing is more trusted than the local publications that have been serving their community for generations. This trust is an issue we’ll explore later in this series.

That strength of community, and the inherent connection to readers that comes so easily to great local publishers, is what makes local news such a strong proposition in this post-advertising-model era.

Time for local news to step up

It’s not yet clear which of these business models will turn out to be the most successful, but since they all rely on strong communities, local news, which has struggled financially for most of the near past, looks uniquely well positioned.

This is great opportunity for local newsrooms but for many it’s going to mean a step change in both the quality and volume of their news output.

The rub here is, as ever, the effect of manpower cost on the creaking business models of local journalism. The catch-22 is that an increase in the quality and quantity of their output is today one of the best opportunities publishers have to build new business models around the strength of their community.

Which is where technology and tools step in. We’ve talked before about why technologies like AI shouldn’t be seen as a threat to journalists’ jobs but as a powerful tool to help them do their jobs better.

Digital tools and platforms, including our own, merely exist to help deliver better journalism. To help build the essential bedrock of the community that is every publisher’s best hope of building sustainable new business models, resolving their catch-22 situation to thrive in the digital age.

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